Part of the problem with the ‘levelling up’ agenda as commonly reported on is a lack of definition.
It is an international issue:
The term originally referred to people not places: older, working-class white voters who lacked advanced qualifications and skills and were estranged from the cosmopolitan social values of liberal professionals and the mainstream parties. Following the Brexit referendum of 2016, this formulation was extended to the ‘left-behind’ places in which such voters were concentrated, and we have since seen the historical allegiance of post-industrial areas in the North and Midlands of England to the Labour Party fracture, leading to the Conservatives’ capture of so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats.
Yet, this political shift is part of a broader international trend as former industrial regions and rural areas have emerged as hotbeds of political discontent and populist support, evident in patterns of support for the Vote Leave in the UK, Donald Trump in the United States, the Rassemblement National (National Rally) and Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) in France and the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany. Different terms for disaffected and disadvantaged areas have gained currency in different countries: ‘left-behind’ places in the UK, ‘forgotten’ territories in France and Italy, Abgehȁngte Regionen (suspended regions) in Germany, and ‘legacy’ cities, ‘rustbelt’ and ‘frostbelt’ in the US.
We can see from such places a certain narrative, old jobs go, young people leave, older people are left behind with a stronger dependency ratio, services, and retail becomes harder to sustain, cycle of decline.
A classic example of this is Corby, where the closure of the steelworks led to a cycle of decline and new industry led to its reversal.
However this narrative is too simplistic. Hartlepool for example has moderate population increase and high employment growth. Can it really be said to be ‘left behind’.
Very few places have both declining population and employment, like Whitehaven and Barrow-in-Furness for example -see this map from the ONS.
I think the answer lies in looking at the solutions to depopulation and stripping it out. Either you have new people moving into an area, or new jobs and then people move in. Numerous programmes around the world have reversed depopulation by giving away free land and buildings and encouraging internal and international migration – free old hilltop towns in Italy to small towns on the Great Prairies to small islands and remote areas in Scotland and Ireland giving away derelict cottages.
Now you might say but according to the dominent narrative immigration was seen as the problem in ‘left behind’ areas. See it another way were it not for in migration these areas would have seen a cycle of decline. With a decline of migration from Europe these areas could enter a cycle of decline. Take this report from Global Futures.
In every year since 2001, a large number of local authorities would have experienced population decline if it weren’t for immigration. Immigration has been particularly important to sustaining the working-age population in many areas: in some years, such as 2012 and 2013, more than three quarters of all local authorities would have seen their working-age population shrink without immigration.
This is striking table, without immigration large areas will go into a cycle of dependency and population decline.
So let me try to define a ‘left behind’ area – one where when immigration is stripped out would have a declining working age population.
There are only two solutions, either increase international working age in migration by incentivizing new jobs in these areas and relaxing work visa rules; or give away land or buildings to ‘homesteaders’ from areas with low dependency rations (most cities) increasing spending power and hence creating jobs.
I suggest as an instrument of regional policy upskilling is very poor value for money. It takes too long and upskilled youth without jobs locally will just move out more quickly. Much better to move in people with skills and for the extra spending power to create secondary and tertiary labour market effects.
Given that increased international in migration is in the short term off the agenda, though prolonged national and regional decline will eventually see common sense, if areas like South Oxfordshire start seeing falling population and local services shutting down as a result the penny will drop; we have as a default solution the homesteading solution, which we have already seen with some success in projects in Liverpool, and the ‘Guardian Houses’ projects in Leipzig where students are given free empty houses in return for renovating them.
Of course some avocado Greens advocate ‘Degrowth’ and would welcome less people. Sadly its been tried and failed, such as the East German ‘Shrinking Cities’ movement, swiftly discredited by the rapid growth and repopulation of Leipzig and the total political failure of politicians that advocated it. Now the buzzword is regrowth not degrowth.
These could take many forms but could include Homes England buying large sites in places like North Lincolnshire and offering plots or buildings for token prices to young people, from wherever in the UK locally or from elsewhere, who have a business plan to set up a new business, home or workplace based.